Sunday, 1 December 2013

Eaglehawk Neck

The Eaglehawk Neck Historic Site offers visitors a unique perspective upon the security system which operated as a vital link throughout the Tasman and Forestier Peninsulas during the convict period. The infamous dogline which ran across the Neck was devised to prevent the escape of prisoners from Port Arthur, while a semaphore station provided communication with the rest of the peninsula.

The system proved quite effective in achieving its purpose. However, it was not enough to prevent the escape of the infamous Martin Cash, who was to become one of Tasmania's best-known bushrangers.
The military station was established at the Neck in 1832 under the command of Ensign Darling. Appropriately, it was referred to as 'the key to the peninsula'. Today, the only building which survives is the Officers' Quarters, erected in 1832. The building has been restored and now acts as a museum and interpretation centre.

It is thought to be the oldest timber military building in Australia. Remnants of the garden are also visible, noticeably the Norfolk Island pine. The first section of this building was erected in 1832. In April of that year Ensign Jones reported that 2 000 bricks had been sent down from Hobart 'for the purpose of completing the chimneys of the Officers' Quarters and the Soldiers Barracks'. Lt. Bunbury described his quarters as 'a rickety little wooden house at the foot of a gloomy, thickly wooded hill, within nearly 200 yards of the sea'. 

Henry Laing, a former convict and Surveyor of Buildings, drew up plans of the buildings on the peninsula in 1836. One of the first buildings to be erected at Eaglehawk Neck, the guard house was a weatherboard building with a shingle roof. It had a full length verandah in front. The sentry box which stood here was a portable structure and it is probable that its location changed from time to time. It was manned day and night. Lt. Governor Denison and his family stayed at Eaglehawk Neck in January 1854. Alterations were made to the Officers' Quarters at that time. He went on to muse that his girls had killed no less than twenty six large snails or slugs which had crept through the joints of the floor in their room at night.

A line of ferocious dogs and detachment of military guards once kept a constant watch along the narrow isthmus at Eaglehawk Neck. They were on the lookout for escaped convicts from Port Arthur. The dogline which ran across the Neck was devised by John Peyton Jones. Any break of the scrub, movement or slightest noise would set the hounds barking and alert the sentries. Dogs were also placed on stages out in the water to detect absconders attempting a sea crossing. They made an impassable barrier. When one of the sergeants foolishly decided to test the effectiveness of the line he was attacked, receiving a severe wound from one of the dogs. Melville described the guard dogs as a fierce and motley bunch.

A convict handler was responsible for their care. It was he who 'brought their meat, shook up their beds, was their friend, and caressed them'. Today, a cutting through the sand dunes marks the location of the dogline.

As an additional security measure constables huts were positioned along both sides of Eaglehawk Bay. A similar, but smaller, detachment of men also guarded East Bay Neck (Dunalley). In addition to the dogs along the dogline, military guards kept a constant watch along the narrow isthmus at Eaglehawk Neck. They lived here, in the military barracks. By 1836 there were an officer, a sergeant and 25 soldiers stationed at the Neck. The settlement was quite substantial. Officers' quarters, a military barracks, store and jetty had been erected. A hut served as a schoolroom for the children of the military. Erected by 1836, the store was a shingle-roof building. It was used as a store, and, at least in 1841, was also used to house prisoners. It was a lonely outposting, especially for the soldiers' wives. In one instance, Harriet, the wife of Ensign Isdell, complained that she had not spoken to another female except her maid for three months.

Others relished the solitude. Henry Bunbury, the commanding officer in 1835, apparently 'liked the place extremely'. He kept himself amused by hunting kangaroo and gardening. Of his official duties he wrote “The only things I have to do are write my name on the back of letters leaving the peninsula, and not to leave home when any prisoner has absconded, just as any sensible man would wish as he might chance to be murdered if he met the ruffian in the bush”.

A chain of semaphore stations once relayed important messages between Port Arthur and Hobart Town. Smaller stations, such as the one at Eaglehawk Neck, were part of a system which operated throughout the peninsula. Moveable arms attached to a mast-like structure were positioned to send numerically coded messages. These were deciphered with the use of a code book which listed up to 3 000 phrases. At Eaglehawk Neck the semaphore was principally used to convey information about absconders from Port Arthur. At night, or when visibility was low, alternative means were found for passing on urgent information. There was a hut for the signalman at the base of the semaphore. The signalmen were convicts.

There were no roads to Eaglehawk Neck in 1832. All supplies had to come by sea. A jetty over 300 m long was built to allow supplies to be brought into the shallow Eaglehawk Bay. A sentry box stood at the end of the jetty and was manned whenever a prisoner was at large. The remains of the jetty can still be seen.
Desperation drove many convicts to attempt escape from Port Arthur, but only a few ever made it successfully via Eaglehawk and East Bay Necks. Some 'bolters' perished in the dense bush or drowned whilst attempting a sea crossing in makeshift canoes and rafts. Others were caught in the act and subjected to severe punishments for their efforts. A belief that the bays were shark-infested acted as a deterrent to sea-based getaways.

Some of the escape plans were quite bizarre. In one case, the convict Billy Hunt disguised himself as a kangaroo and attempted to hop across the Neck. His plan was brought to a sudden halt when one of the soldiers decided to shoot the large boomer. Billy was forced to reveal his true identity. Martin Cash and fellow convicts, Lawrence Kavanagh and George Jones, made a carefully planned and executed escape in 1842. On reaching the Neck they tied their clothes in a bundle on their heads and followed each other silently into the water. Cash lost sight of his friends and feared that they had been eaten by sharks. On reaching the opposite bank, however, they were re-united, though all had lost their clothes during the crossing. The men stole provisions and clothes from a nearby road-gang's hut. After spending several months at large, living as bushrangers in the Derwent Valley and Midlands, all were re-captured. Cash and Kavanagh were transported to Norfolk Island 'for life' whilst Jones was hanged in May 1844. The escape of Martin Cash and gang prompted the authorities to tighten up security arrangements at the Neck. Additional guards were placed at strategic points along Eaglehawk Bay. Martin Cash was one of the few convicts to outflank the formidable security arrangements at the Neck. He was successful on two occasions. According to Cash, to successfully pass this barrier gave an escapee considerable prestige amongst his peers.

With the closure of Port Arthur penal settlement in 1877 the station at Eaglehawk Neck was abandoned. The land and buildings were then acquired by private settlers. The Costello family ran a farm on the property for most of this century. When the Costello family moved to Eaglehawk Neck in 1918 and lived in the Officer’s Quarters, the building was in a state of disrepair. Blackberries grew right up to the door and ivy had taken over two rooms. The Costellos undertook many improvements to the building over the years.
In 1991 the site was acquired by the State Government and is currently under the control of the Parks & Wildlife Service

Don't miss the opportunity to spend a little time in the Officer’s Quarters and surrounding grounds to discover the remarkable history of the Eaglehawk Neck Historic Site.